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What is Autocratic Leadership?

There are many different leadership styles, and each one has benefits, and negatives, depending on the type of business and work environment that you operate in. Autocratic leadership is sometimes also referred to as authoritarian leadership. It is a leadership style that involves absolute control over team members and employees, with autocratic leaders basing their decision-making processes on their own thoughts and ideas. Autocratic leaders rarely take advice from members of their team, trusting their own judgement above all else. Whilst many autocratic leaders are seen as bossy, controlling, or even dictatorial, in the right situation it is a leadership style that can be beneficial. Here’s everything you need to know about autocratic leadership, and whether it is the right leadership style for you or for your organisation:

What is Autocratic Leadership?

When thinking of autocratic leadership, most people will imagine a domineering boss shouting at, and controlling, their employees. Whilst this is an often-accurate depiction, autocratic leadership involves so much more than this. Autocratic leadership is defined as a leadership style where all the decision-making and power within a team lies with just one person. That person will tell their employees what to do, rather than ask them what they think they should do. Autocratic leaders control their teams with an iron fist, expecting their employees to work to rule and discouraging them from demonstrating any creativity or free-thinking. Work environments under autocratic leaders are highly structured and driven by rules. You will find autocratic leaders in a wide range of different business types.

Because it is such a restrictive model, autocratic leadership often gets a bad press. But it is important to note that autocratic leadership can work: autocratic leaders tend to be highly successful and driven by their company’s progress. Because of this, in the right situation, autocratic leadership can be incredibly successful. They push teams beyond their limits and achieve extraordinary results at the same time. But this success often comes at a cost.

Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership

Some of the main characteristics of autocratic leadership are that:

  • It is a leadership style that allows little or no input from employees or team members. Employees are expected to follow instructions and stick to rigid rules and regulations.
  • Autocratic leaders are solely responsible for the decision-making process within their teams. They never ask for advice or support from other team members. They use their own initiative and experience as a basis for the decisions that they make, which they often make and implement quickly.
  • Employees are often left feeling that their opinions are not valued. They are not trusted to assist with decision-making processes or assigned important tasks. Autocratic leaders prefer to undertake any task of perceived value themselves.
  • Autocratic leaders create working environments that are highly structured and very rigid. Rules are important to them, and they will communicate these rules and guidelines very clearly to their employees. If these rules are then broken, employees will often be disciplined and treated without empathy.
  • Autocratic leadership discourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Thinking outside of the box often means breaking rules and regulations, which is something those autocratic leaders will struggle to accept.

The main characteristics of autocratic leaders are that they are motivated and self-confident. They have clarity in their vision for the organisation, and they are prepared to be held accountable for their independent decisions. This means that autocratic leaders are often seen as dependable, but they can also be bullish and domineering toward their colleagues.

Positives of Autocratic Leadership

There are many benefits of adopting an autocratic leadership model. These include:

  • Fast decision-making. When everyone in a team is given a say or asked for their opinion, it can take several days to make a decision. Under an autocratic leadership system, decision-making is fast because it falls to just one person. Autocratic leaders tend to be decisive and have structured their teams in such a way that action can be taken right away. That makes autocratic leadership a viable option for fast-paced businesses.
  • Clear Organisational Chain of Commands. Under an autocratic leader, it is always very clear who is in charge. These kinds of leaders focus on structure and rules within their organisations, and they also ensure that the chain of command below them is clearly defined and established. This means that, if something goes wrong or needs approval, team members always know who they should talk to. They can then get an answer or solution to their problem straight away.
  • Accountability. When something goes wrong it is easy to know where to lay the blame in an autocratic business model. Because the autocratic leader is responsible for making all of the key business decisions, they are also responsible for the failure of any bad decisions they make.
  • Gives Teams Direction. People often need someone to follow and feel most comfortable when they are being led by someone they trust and respect. This is particularly true in times of uncertainty, change, or crisis. Autocratic leadership gives teams a strong sense of direction, so that team members know that someone is in control. This can, in turn make them feel calmer, allowing them to focus on their own tasks rather than worrying about what is happening at a higher level. As a result, autocratic leadership can increase productivity and lower stress levels for team members when it is used correctly.
  • Helps to Cover Skill Gaps. A company is only as good as its employees: but if your company has employees that are inexperienced or have gaps in their skills then an autocratic leader can help to cover these gaps and ensure that the business still meets its targets and goals. This is achieved by providing clear instructions, oversight, and guidance. As a result, quality, standards, skills and turnaround times in junior team members will increase. This is because an autocratic leader doesn’t give them the freedom to make mistakes.

Negatives of Autocratic Leadership

Whilst it is clear, then, that autocratic leadership has its benefits there are also many negatives associated with adopting this leadership model. These include:

  • A negative impact on other team members. When no one asks for your opinion or your opinion is continually ignored, this can have a negative impact on your morale and on your wellbeing. Working under an autocratic leader can cause employees to disconnect from the values of their company. They can also lose interest in their role. What’s more, working under a leader who is so authoritarian in their approach can lead to feelings of fear and resentment.
  • Higher team turnover. Because working under an autocratic leader can be so demoralising, turnover rates in companies that use this kind of leadership model tend to be much higher. Continuous recruitment and staff training can be very expensive, meaning that this type of leadership can be an expensive one to upkeep.
  • One person is given too much power. Whilst it is much faster to have just one autocratic leader in control of all core decision-making, if that leader makes a bad decision, then opportunities could be missed. Autocratic leadership doesn’t leave any room for other opinions, meaning the unique strengths and points of view of core team members are ignored, often to the detriment of the good of the team. For this reason, autocratic leaders can often hold their organisations back.
  • There isn’t room for creativity. Under an autocratic leadership model, no room is given for employees to be creative or to think outside the box. Developing individual problem-solving skills or leadership skills is also discouraged. That means that individuals working for teams led by autocratic leaders don’t know how to be innovative or how to make their voices heard. This could hold them back when they move on to other organisations.
Autocratic leader and employee

Situations When Autocratic Leadership Works

Autocratic leadership works best in business environments that benefit from structure and regulation. Some keen examples of this are businesses that are based in the manufacturing or construction sector. Leadership models in these sectors look different because rules are essential for ensuring the safety of all members of staff. As a result, it is essential that each person have a clearly assigned task, a deadline, and rules to follow. These things all lend themselves to autocratic leadership. Autocratic leaders work quickly and decisively, and they encourage their employees to do the same. This means that projects are always finished on time. But more importantly, with their focus on structure, rules, and protocols, autocratic leaders also ensure that employees within these industrial settings follow safety rules to prevent accidents and injuries. It is for this reason, above any other, that autocratic leaders are so highly prized in the manufacturing industry and construction sector.

For all organisations, there are situations when autocratic leadership can be beneficial. If you need to reach goals quickly, for example, then adopting an autocratic leadership model, at least for a short period of time, could help you to do so. Autocratic leadership also works well in environments that are lacking skilled workforces: the step-by-step guidelines, instructions, and oversight offered by an autocratic leader can help to fill any skills gap and ensure that productivity still remains high and that deadlines are met. Finally, autocratic leaders also work well in situations where time constraints are an issue. individual decision-makers can plan, assess, and correct their teams faster and better than groups or committees. So, if you have a deadline to meet, or find yourself in an emergency situation, autocratic leadership is likely to be the best (as well as the fastest) option.

You will find many examples of autocratic leadership in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese work cultures. These working environments are well-known for their rigid structures and top-down approaches to most business decisions. They are led by autocratic leaders who lead submissive and obedient workforces, and these examples work incredibly well. For many businesses within these countries, working under an autocratic leadership model gives them both a competitive and a market edge.

When to Avoid Autocratic Leadership

Some of the most successful companies in the world have used autocratic leadership to achieve their goals. But not all situations will lend themselves favourably to autocratic leadership. In fact, in some situations, autocratic leadership can cause more harm than good. Businesses should avoid using autocratic leadership models if their staff become tense, fearful or resentful of the leadership model. In that circumstance, a further autocratic leadership model will only breed resentment and could lead employees to leave their positions, resulting in an expensive drive of recruitment and retraining. You will know if autocratic leadership is having a negative impact on your employees if your business experiences low staff morale, high turnover and absenteeism and work stoppage.

You should also avoid autocratic leadership if you work in a creative environment or if your business relies on creativity and out-of-the-box thinking for its continued success. Autocratic leadership has no place in a creative environment: this leadership model stifles creativity and encourages conformity to a single, prescribed path instead. Finally, new businesses that are at an innovation stage of development should also avoid autocratic leadership for the same reason: many new businesses rely on the creativity and ideas of their eager junior members to power their launch and their continued success.

Examples of Autocratic Leadership

New research shows that, in some workplaces, autocratic leaders are not only considered necessary, but they are also well-liked. If you feel that you are an autocratic leader, or would thrive in an environment where autocratic leadership models are valued and appreciated then here are some examples of autocratic leadership roles:

  • Prison Officer. Prison officers prove a strong and obvious example of autocratic leadership. To take charge of the inmates in their care, correction officers have to abide by strict rules. These rules are laid out by the judicial system to protect the inmates. They also have to ensure that other employees follow these same rules. The consequences of rule-breaking are significant, making this a great example of when autocratic leadership is both needed and appreciated.
  • Surgeon. Surgeons work in high-pressure, fast-paced environments. Their work is vital and meticulous, and there is rarely time to seek the opinions of others. Surgeons are authoritative, autocratic leaders who rely on their own opinions and decision-making processes. They are confident and use this confidence to perform precise tasks with care.
  • Restaurant Manager. Working as a restaurant manager may not seem an obvious example of autocratic leadership. But restaurant managers are responsible for adhering to local and national food safety and sanitation regulations. They therefore often use autocratic techniques to ensure that these rules are enforced: the success or failure of the restaurant will depend on this.
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